Romance in black papers
I solidified my love for books secretly reading my mother’s historical romance novels at 11 years of age. Nothing is unusual about this experience except that I was a young African American girl exploring love and romance through the eyes of Catherine Cookson, Jude Deveraux, and Johanna Lindsey. These novels would indelibly mark popular representations of love and romance as white, in my mind. Thinking back I realize now that my mother, a woman who refused to purchase white dolls for her daughters, must have chosen these novels, in part, because of the lack of romances with African American characters at their center.
What my mother and I did not know 30 years ago was that a black world of love and romance waited to be discovered in the pages of early 20th-century black magazines and newspapers. Mostly known for strident protests against racial discrimination, the black press in the 1920s and 1930s also published romance fiction, which offered African Americans an opportunity to escape into worlds filled with the heady ups and heartbreaking downs of romantic love.
Scholars of the African American literary tradition and of popular romance have paid virtually no attention to romance found in the black press. On the romance side, the late 20th century has often been characterized as the starting point of black romance stories, with earlier short or serial stories, simply forgotten. (Gwen Osborne, for example, has marked 1992 as the year the publishing industry recognized African American women who read romance novels and began to publish ones with black characters.) As for literary scholarship, even as it is widely acknowledged that many of the most famous Harlem writers got their start writing for black newspapers, most research has focused on and canonized material written for middle-class and white audiences, much of it published by white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. Indeed, critics then and now have often commented that the Harlem Renaissance writer represented the “seamier” side of black life in ways designed to titillate the literary palate of white audiences. Independently published, black newspapers appealed to a black mass audience—one which included both middle class and working class African Americans—and the fiction we find there is quite different.
In many ways, the black newspaper popular romance is analogous to the dime novels and pulp fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. In both we find boilerplate, potboiler plots: one set with very few representations of African Americans, the other featuring African American characters in every possible role. Indeed, in 1940, the acclaimed African American poet, Margaret Walker, derided these stories for unrealistically depicting blacks as “millionaires, princesses, [and] wealthy professional men who possess great savior faire” (Walker 1940, p. 11).
Walker’s critique referred to stories such as “The Dark Knight,” a 1930 romance, which was featured in one of the most widely circulated black newspapers of the time, the Pittsburgh Courier. “The Dark Knight” tells the story of Roderick (Rod) Herrick, a young black man from Montana, who, upon his father giving him a letter from his deceased mother urging him to leave the lonely life of the homestead, travels to Chicago where he meets and falls in love with the beautiful and wealthy Lyla Durant. After a series of climatic events and traumatic separations, Rod and Lyla reunite to marry and live “happily ever after.”
Despite the seeming absence of political and racialized content in “The Dark Knight” and similar stories, black popular romance, as Conseula Francis has argued, is inherently political. Its existence automatically counters the insidious and negative stereotypes of criminality and hypersexuality historically ascribed to African Americans. In “The Dark Knight,” we see Rod and Lyla restrain themselves from engaging in a pre-marital sexual encounter, preserving, through their actions, the sanctity of marital sex and the domestic ideal. Just as significantly, “The Dark Knight” challenged the common idea that African Americans lacked the capacity for romantic love, a love that has been and continues to be integrally linked with a white, bourgeois value system.
Ironically, older generations of African American female newspaper readers had a much more racially expansive understanding of love and romance than their post-civil rights daughters would have. I recently asked my mother about her choices in romance novels had she been given the option of selecting stories centered on the lives of African Americans. She immediately replied, “What do you think?”
Barnett, Claude, Papers. Margaret Walker. “The Negro Press in Chicago: The Cultural Press.” 1940.
Kim Gallon is an assistant professor of history and the director of Africana studies at Muhlenberg College.